Paris Inondé 1910

January 26, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive
Paris Inondé 1910

Piggyback ride on Paris’s Rue Bonaparte during the Great Flood of 1910. © World’s Graphic Press / Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris / Roger-Viollet

Why does the Great Flood of 1910 loom so large in the imagination of Parisians? Not only is it often mentioned in the press, but the City …

Paris Inondé 1910

Piggyback ride on Paris’s Rue Bonaparte during the Great Flood of 1910. © World’s Graphic Press / Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris / Roger-Viollet

Why does the Great Flood of 1910 loom so large in the imagination of Parisians? Not only is it often mentioned in the press, but the City of Paris likes to brag about the anti-flooding measures that have been taken since then and locals are always pointing out the statue of the “Zouave” on the Pont de l’Alma (the only remaining one of four statues of soldiers used to mark the rising waters of the Seine). And now at least two exhibitions are being held to commemorate the event on this hundredth anniversary.

Many floods with much worse consequences have taken place since then (think New Orleans 2005, for example), so why are Parisians so inordinately proud of theirs? I went to the exhibition “Paris Inondé 1910” (through March 28) at the Galerie des Bibliothèques-Ville de Paris to find out why. One of the reasons turns out to be that this was the first time that such an act of god had been transformed into a major media event by the popular press, one that lived on in the collective memory thanks to the mass production of hundreds of picture postcards and the publishing of many books of photographs.

Another notable fact – and one that says much about the city’s organizational talents (exemplified here by a number of municipal posters put up to warn citizens that goods fished out of the flotsam did not belong to them, for instance, or to promulgate measures to prevent epidemics afterward) – is that only one person died in the flood: a 22-year-old corporal who fell off a boat and was swept away by the current. And perhaps the real reason is that this is Paris – the most beautiful city in the world and the center of the world to the French – and when anything out of the ordinary happens here, it’s simply extraordinaire.

The show starts with some rather obvious statements: the flood was caused by excess rain, big crowds of Parisians came out to look at the flood waters, etc., but gradually becomes far more interesting. There are, of course, many wonderful old photos of flooded streets, people being ferried around on makeshift rafts or laughing as they pose for a photographer while waiting to cross hastily built footbridges across the floodwaters. One shows a man climbing a ladder to deliver supplies to a woman trapped in her second-floor apartment. Others depict soup kitchens and temporary shelters. One atmospheric shot shows people getting into a boat under a cloudy, moonlit sky.

Maurice Louis Branger, who took many of the images shown here, got an especially beautiful shot of the flooded Rue du Bac at night: the city

Paris Inondé 1910

Rue de Lyon during the flood. © Abert Chevojon / BHVP / Roger-Viollet

was actually quite lovely when flooded, inspiring people to compare it to Venice. In some flooded streets we see wooden paving stones – which some clever city official had decided were more resistant than cobblestones – floating on the surface of the water. Needless to say, they were never used again. In other streets, sidewalks caved in, forming inner-city lakes.

A map of the city on an interactive computer screen (with a human helper on hand to assist technodummies) allows residents to see images of what was happening in their own neighborhood during the flood.

Posters put up in the streets by the bakers’ union vehemently deny rumors that bakers are taking advantage of the situation by hiking the price of bread, a touchy subject in France, where bread is the stuff of revolutions.

Among many interesting facts, we learn that Paris’s up-to-the-minute infrastracture wasn’t yet up to the challenge. The extremely modern transport system – including six Métro lines (many of the tunnels were flooded) – failed, and the old horse-drawn omnibuses had to be put back into service. The Gare de Lyon was turned into a stable for 75,000 horses brought out of retirement. Large numbers of the poor creatures died from the exertion. The zoo in the Jardin des Plantes was largely spared, however, losing only two antelopes and one giraffe to the flood.

Not surprisingly, electricity also failed in flooded neighborhoods, but, in a stroke of luck, the central food market, Les Halles – commonly known as the “belly of Paris” – was not flooded, so that provisions were available. The flood did reach as far as the Gare Saint-Lazare, however, with the water running through a Métro tunnel along what had once been a branch of the Seine.

Some 200,000 people were turned out of their homes by the flood, and the poor, as always, suffered most, although, to the great delight of the general public, many rich people were also displaced from their homes. Others profited from the flood. When the floodwaters finally started receding (they stopped rising on January 29), and people were faced with the formidable task of cleaning up stinking basements, getting rid of waterlogged furniture and disinfecting to prevent disease, the entrepreneurs came out in force to sell disinfectants, water purifiers and other suddenly-necessary products. In general, however, the response to the flood was generous. Disaster aid charities and shelters for the displaced were quickly set up both in France and abroad.

The flood had its humorous side. One gentleman had an elegant calling card printed up for the occasion: “Mr. Mareuse ne recevera le jeudi 3 février en raison des inondations (Mr. Mareuse will not be receiving on Thursday, February 3, because of the floods.” Another “gentleman” sought to take advantage of the floods in a classified ad: “Philanthropic monsieur procure situation jeune femme ou fille sinistré. Discretion assuré” (“Philanthropic gentleman offers position to young female flood victim. Discretion assured”).

Even my personal hero, the famously neurasthenic Marcel Proust, was affected by the flood. In a letter written on February 15, 1910, after the cleanup had begun, he said that, although he hated to complain, the drying and disinfecting processes being used in his building were causing him many “crises” (presumably of asthma) that nothing would stop. When they finally calmed down, he couldn’t sleep because of the noise of rotten boards being torn up. Le pauvre Marcel.

It took two months and 400 million francs (€1 billion today) to get Paris back to normal, but the Great Flood was never forgotten. The exhibition makes you almost wish you had been there, not only for the excitement of the spectacle but also because it takes a crisis like a natural disaster or general strike or to bring out the camaraderie of Parisians.

To get a better sense of what it was like to be there, don’t miss the YouTube-length film clips shown at the end of the exhibition. If you can’t go to this show, visit it virtually at

Another exhibition on the subject, “C’était Il y a 100 Ans… La Grande Crue de 1910: Paris Inondé Vu par le Journal des Débats,” is being held at the Louvre des Antiquaires, with photos and eyewitness accounts from a special edition of Le Journal des Débats, whose reporters and photographers flooded the city to cover the disaster.

Heidi Ellison

Galerie des Bibliothèques-Ville de Paris: 22, rue Malher, Paris 75004. Métro: Saint Paul. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 1pm-7pm, until 9pm on Thursday. Admission: €4. Through March 28.

Le Louvre des Antiquaires: 2, Place du Palais Royal, 75001 Paris. Métro: Palais Royal. Tel.: 01 42 97 27 27. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-7pm. Admission: free. Through March 7.

Reader Janette Parr writes: “Thank you for this article. I am to arrive in Paris in April after the exhibition has closed, but the article directed me to experience it online (a superb Web site).”

Buy related books and films from the Paris Update store.

More reviews of Paris art shows.

Reader Reaction: Click here to respond to this article (your response may be published on this page and is subject to editing).

© 2010 Paris Update


What do you think? Send a comment:

Your comment is subject to editing. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for free!

The Paris Update newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Wednesday, full of the latest Paris news, reviews and insider tips.